The New Guard: Lillard clutch since day one

Damian Lillard's killer clutch play is nothing new. Just take a look at his rookie season. (Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

As a rookie it only took a handful of games to realize how special Damian Lillard could be. The new face of a storied but hard-luck franchise, the oft-overlooked Portland Trail Blazers‘ point guard offered hope to a fan base that had seen the careers of past icons crash and burn (think: Walton, Oden, Bowie). In Portland, Lillard was a star from day one, and after being named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 2013, the rest of the basketball world took notice.

We set out to chronicle the early days of a future star, and in the process got an unfiltered look at how an unheralded guard from a tiny school took the NBA by storm.

This season, Lillard has elevated his game to another level. He’s averaging 25.3 points and 6.9 assists while keeping Portland in the playoff race despite losing four starters this past summer, and consistently proving to be one of most clutch players of his era.

Damian Lillard fidgets on the sidelines, rocking back and forth on the soles of his red and black Adidas sneakers, and takes one last look at the shot clock—frozen at 4.2 seconds. It’s mid-December in Portland, and the hometown Trail Blazers are tied at 92 with the New Orleans Hornets. Moments earlier, during a timeout, Blazers head coach Terry Stotts drew up a play that gave Lillard, his rookie point guard, two options: Get the ball to a cutting Nic Batum or take the shot and win the game. Now, as Lillard waits to inbound the ball, it hits him: This is the biggest moment of my career.

Lillard had played in all of 22 NBA games at this point. But in that span, the Oakland, Calif., native, who was selected sixth overall in the 2012 draft, practically sealed the Rookie of the Year honours by averaging more than 18 points and six assists a game for a Blazers team in the playoff hunt during what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.

At the referee’s signal, Lillard passes the ball to Luke Babbitt, who reciprocates the gesture at the top of the three-point line.

Three seconds.

Lillard surveys the floor, takes a screen from Babbitt and crosses to his right.

Two seconds.

He leans back, lifts off the ground, and launches a missile from beyond the three-point line over Ryan Anderson’s outstretched hands.

One second.

By the time the ball meets its target, Lillard’s back is to the hoop, his arms are raised and fists clenched as 18,772 Blazermaniacs erupt in unison at the sound of the final buzzer. In a rare display of emotion, he shouts glorious expletives at the rafters, struts toward the stands and high-fives fans before his teammates collapse on him like the Hornets’ defence wishes it had.

This scene has played out at the Rose Garden before, but the memories are scarred. The ghosts of past heroes—Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Greg Oden, Brandon Roy—whose careers were cut tragically short by injuries still linger.

If you don’t think a franchise with 24 playoff appearances in the past 30 years, including three in the past five, could be this tortured, you must not be from Portland. Last season, when the club was forced to amnesty the city’s most beloved athlete, Roy, because of an endless string of injuries, fans described it, without a hint of hyperbole, as “traumatic.” They loved Roy, maybe more than any player in club history, which only made losing him hurt even more. But now, in Lillard, an unassuming rookie from a small college program in rural Utah that hasn’t produced an All-American or made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament since 1972, they have someone poised to rid the team of its ghosts once and for all.

The Lillard Era in Portland began the night of the season opener, a 116–106 win over the Lakers. The 22-year-old finished with 23 points and 11 assists in 35 minutes, becoming only the third player in NBA history to post at least 20 points and 10 dimes in their debut. The other two? Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson. He followed it up by becoming the only point guard to rack up 20 points in nine of the first 16 games this season. Just as impressive is an advanced basketball IQ that allows him to run the pick and roll like a 10-year veteran, and a smooth, reliable jumper that keeps defenders honest.

It’s exactly what his team needed. “This franchise was starved for a starting-calibre point guard,” says Portland GM Neil Olshey, who was hired away from the Clippers less than a month before the 2012 draft. Holding the sixth pick, Olshey, like most GMs, had Lillard as the top point guard available despite the concerns from scouts that his success at Weber State in the overlooked Big Sky Conference couldn’t possibly translate to the NBA. If there were any doubts in Olshey’s mind, Lillard’s pre-draft workout with the Blazers erased them. “For starters, he didn’t miss a shot in an hour and a half,” Olshey says. “But we didn’t bring him in to test his skills. We wanted to see how he would handle himself. Coming into that day it was his draft position to lose, and from the workouts to the interviews, we just loved everything about him.”

But what even Olshey didn’t know was that Lillard had an edge over his peers: He’d found his chi.

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A shaft of sunlight spills through the glass door and splashes across a rack of well-worn dumbbells and other exercise equipment in a large room with blue walls that match the ocean less than three miles to the west. Newspaper and magazine clippings of the local athletes who have come through the entrance over the years line the walls—including a few featuring Damian Lillard. This stripmall dojo in North Oakland’s Mosswood district is Ant’s Mind and Body, home base of strength and conditioning coach Anthony Eggleton, a Qigong master of the internal martial arts and self-proclaimed healer. Lillard’s former AAU coach, Randy Young, introduced the point guard to Eggleton, known as Coach Ant, when Lillard was in Grade 7, and the two have been working together ever since.

On this summer day, the square-jawed Lillard sits at the end of a weight bench with his broad shoulders held back in perfect posture. Eggleton hovers in front of him, a black Nike sweatsuit hanging off his thin but solid frame. Palming his stomach with his fingertips over his belly button, Lillard takes in a deep breath and loudly hums “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnddd” for as long as he can. “I taught him how to turn on his energy centres through martial arts, using breathing exercises,” Eggleton explains later. “And over time, I taught him to advance his chi energy. There’s this centre that controls your fine motor skills called the lower dantian; it’s right below the navel. We work on building power in that by breathing right and concentrating on locking the chi in there.”

It may sound a little out there, at least by NBA training standards, but Lillard is a believer. “Once I noticed that it was helping me, I bought into it,” he says after warming up for a game against Toronto in early January. “It’s really detailed, small stuff like trying to look at the centre between my eyebrows when I get tired.” He crosses his eyes to demonstrate. “I still do the breathing routines. Whether it’s a placebo effect or not, it works for me because I understand the philosophy behind it.”

It was with a similarly open mind that Lillard made the decision to play his college ball at Weber State. He wasn’t heavily recruited in high school, but by his senior season, he had received scholarship offers from larger Pac-12 schools, programs with NBA pedigree. Instead, he chose the isolation of Ogden, Utah. (In 2012, the town would name a day in his honour.) “The bigger programs were just blowing smoke, saying how great he was, and if you come here you can do whatever you want,” recalls Weber State head coach Randy Rahe. “Well, Damian doesn’t do bulls--t very well. Our approach was always, ‘If you don’t work hard every day, go to class, be a good teammate, I’ll send you home.’ And that resonated with him. Damian is an old soul, I guess you could say.”

That Lillard gravitated to Coach Rahe’s program is no surprise considering his supportive yet disciplined upbringing. His dad, Houston, is a throwback, a hard-nosed type who wouldn’t let Lillard lower the adjustable rim to dunk on the hoop in their driveway when he was a kid. And the house rule for Lillard and his older brother was that if you played H-O-R-S-E, you had to shoot left-handed.

Lillard planned to enter the NBA draft as a junior, but a broken foot suffered just nine games into the season shattered his dream. During his recovery, Lillard, already the team’s pre-eminent gym rat, rededicated himself to getting better, reshaping his upper body in the weight room and watching film of every game he played in a Weber State uniform—scouting himself like an opposing coach. “My whole college career I was trying to turn that corner, to grow up as a person,” Lillard says. “That injury was the turning point for me.”

Soon after returning to the court at the Dee Events Center for his senior year with the Wildcats, Lillard was more dominant than ever—finishing the season as the second-leading scorer in the nation.

“I always felt underappreciated,” he says without hesitation when asked what keeps him motivated now that he’s establishing himself at the highest level. “When scouts started looking at me as an NBA prospect, they said I played in a small conference, that I wouldn’t be able to do the same thing against this level of competition. I didn’t buy into it then, now that I’m here, there’s no reason I’m going to buy into it now.”

Lillard came to Portland with less fanfare than the heralded players who broke fans’ hearts, and, in some cases, their own bones. All he had was supreme confidence, and enough game to justify it. Still, the pain from the past has made Blazers fans understandably hesitant to fully embrace their new star. But with each savvy dribble-drive or rope-lined jumper from the rookie, they can stop looking back. Every dagger with the game on the line wins him more followers, and a bigger slice of a town that will one day be his. He’s everything the ghosts of Blazers past might have been, and everything they never were. That’s the hope, at least. Thanks to Damian Lillard, there’s plenty of it to go around.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine in 2013 during Lillard's rookie season.